It was the moment everyone had been waiting for. As the choir finally arrived at the Hallelujah chorus, the audience rose as one. The Cape Town City Hall does not posses the greatest acoustics, but its slightly faded interior brightened with the soaring notes. The city’s Philharmonia Choir has performed Handel’s Messiah every Easter since 1968. Then the audience would have been exclusively white. Today it is thoroughly multiracial and as the packed hall finally shuffled out, there was a warm buzz of an evening well spent. The tenor, Thembinkosi Mgetyengana, still studying at the University of Cape Town, had been particularly well received.
The City Hall has seen its fair share of illustrious guests. The Queen celebrated her twenty-first birthday here in 1947. The mayoral parlour – with its magnificent wood panelling – was redecorated specially for the occasion. On the wall an oil painting of the warship that had brought her to these shores, is depicted docked with the face of Table Mountain towering above it. On the shelf, there is a black and white photograph of Princess Elizabeth in a flowing party dress, smiling just a little nervously.
On her twenty-first birthday, on the 21 April 1947, the princess was touring South Africa with her parents and younger sister. In a speech broadcast on the radio from Cape Town, she spoke of dedicating her life to the service of the Commonwealth. “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belongs,” she said.
But it is for another, more famous speech, for which this Town Hall is best known. Just below the mayoral parlour, up a short flight of steps from the street, is the modest balcony that was once the centre of world attention. It was from here, on Sunday 11 February 1990 that Nelson Mandela made his first public address after his release from 27 years of imprisonment. The Grand Parade, laid out before the City Hall, was packed with more than 250,000 people. The speech was televised live around the world.
Mandela, his voice ringing with emotion, told the vast audience, “I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people.” He went on to thank the millions who had “campaigned tirelessly” for his release, before addressing people the City of Cape Town itself. “I extend special greetings to the people of Cape Town, the city which has been my home for three decades. Your mass marches and other forms of struggle have served as a constant source of strength to all political prisoners.”
Today, at 94, Nelson Mandela is once more back in hospital, suffering from pneumonia. It is the third time he’s been treated in an undisclosed hospital in the past year. The South African public are given brief, reassuring bulletins on his condition, but it is no longer in the headlines or the topic of conversation. Most people seem resigned that the man who so inspired the country is now in some sort of transition between this world and the next. It has been years since he took an active part in politics and even glimpses of Mandela in public have been rare events. World leaders have, sometimes, been allowed to visit him, but even these have become increasingly infrequent.
It is, perhaps, the calm before the storm. The international media have been preparing for the Mandela death for years. Achieves have been trawled, locations recced, guests booked. Days of non-stop coverage have been meticulously planned. Even the Mandela’s old party – the ANC – is said to have quietly appointed a public relations firm to handle the avalanche of media attention that his demise is certain to unleash.
One question almost every journalist has been asked for years is: what will happen when Mandela goes? The seldom articulated implication is clear – will the reconciliation that he preached be swept away in a tide of black anger? It is not difficult to find websites predicting just such an outcome. One suggests 70,000 will be killed in a Communist inspired plot.
While predicting the future is always a mug's game, this kind of speculation is no more than far-right hysteria. No one doubts that Mandela’s death will be met with a vast outpouring of emotion from ordinary South Africans – of all races. But it will be tempered by the values that he stood for: of reconciliation, understanding and harmony among his people. The country’s institutions are sound and its roots are deep. They will survive even the passing of its most revered son.